I have published a new paper with a former student, Neeti Gupta, in the journal New Media & Society (NM&S), on wi-fi use in cafes. This paper explores how wireless internet use influences community, the trend toward privatism, and the social life of public spaces. It is based on ethnographic observations of four coffee shops located in Boston and Seattle: free wifi cafes and Starbucks locations. The paper concludes with mixed findings; that there are two primary types of wireless users that offer divergent implications for community and public sociability: networked individualism and glocalization. This paper also explores the possibility of \’contextual\’ or \’neighborhood effects\’ within cafes, whereby the lack of sociability of some cafe users has the potential to reduce the overall sociability of a public space. We hypothesis about the implications of municipal wi-fi (muni wi-fi) projects for public spaces in general.
Coincidentally, this past weekend the New York Times Freakonomics blog posted an article that discussed similar findings to what we reported in our paper, that there is a tendency for cafe owners to view wi-fi users as \’wireless squatters\’ and to push them out. The Freakonomics blog post was based on a study of Paris coffee shops.
The NM&S paper was written a couple years ago and ends where a more recent project on the \’Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces\’ begins. This broader study of wireless Internet use is based on observations of over 1300 laptop users, book readers, mobile phone users, and users of other portable media in seven field sites (parks, plazas, and public markets) located in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto. A paper based on this project is currently under review.